Prominent American Jews discuss Israel

Prominent American Jews discuss Israel

On the succeeding evenings of May 9th and 10th, I had the good fortune of attending two stimulating events honoring Yom Ha’atzmaut (Israel Independence Day). First was a discussion between Arnold Eisen, the Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America (JTS, the seat of Conservative Judaism)  and John Ruskay, the executive vice president and CEO of UJA-Federation of New York, held at JTS.  It was not actually a debate because they are both liberal Zionists.   

One can read Dr. Eisen’s recent op-ed in the NY Jewish Week for a sense of his views: “Appreciating, And Learning To Talk About, Israel” is a passionate plea for civility and honesty regarding Israel’s flaws as well as its merits, from an unabashed supporter of Israel and a self-described political, religious and cultural Zionist.

Dr. Ruskay has a Ph.D. in political science from Columbia, but has had only one stint in academia, as vice chancellor of JTS for eight years.  He achieved a measure of notoriety in the 1970s as a leader of Breira, an organization of “premature doves” regarding Israel, who were largely excoriated by the Jewish establishment at the time.  Still, this did not bar him from a highly successful career in mainstream Jewish institutions. 

One point he raised in passing, which was not picked up and discussed any further, surprised me.  He was good enough to confirm by email what I thought I had heard:

I have argued in multiple contexts that the conflation of advocacy for Israel and Israel education has denied generations of our community the opportunity to develop their own views about what Israel can and should be.  We need both advocacy, and Israel education but they need to be conceptually differentiated.

Developing such positions–whether on the right or the left—strengthens connection to Israel and engagement.  And is urgently needed. While I believe in developing contexts for Jews young and old to develop strong views on the whole range of matters and potential connections with groups in Israel, I have come to the view that it is an ambiguous position for Jewish leadership to lobby in Washington against positions advanced by the democratically-elected government of the people of Israel.

Upon reading this last sentence carefully, however, I conclude that he may be speaking specifically of Jewish communal leadership and not of individual Jews who may support lobbying efforts by J Street, for example.  But I have not yet received a further comment from Dr. Ruskay on this.  

Arnold Eisen
Something that Dr. Eisen said about pluralism also prompted me to ask him for clarification.  This is the essential part of what he emailed me:

I am a pluralist:  I think it is important that we not only cooperate with people of other views, traditions and communities but give them respect, knowing that we have much to learn from them.

I want Israelis to extend such cooperation and respect to individuals and groups that differ from them religiously, politically, culturally.  I wish there were more such pluralism in evidence — not only between Jews and Arabs but among various Jewish groups.

At the same time,  I have no problem seeing Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, and the State as legitimately and necessarily serving Jewish ends more than it serves the ends of other groups.   I believe that this preference is not incompatible with democracy or pluralism.  The eminent legal scholar Ruth Gavison has written on this at length.  I think it was said last evening that governments of France or Germany or many other nations give preference to the furtherance of one culture or group interest over others.  Israel is far from unique in this regard.  You are right to use the term “balancing act.”  I do not want Jewish priorities to trample rights of others.  But protecting rights of others does not preclude favoring Jewish interests.

The point he makes about “other nations” comports with what both speakers said about Israel’s Law of Return for Jews not being unique, and being perfectly defensible (e.g, as affirmative action for a persecuted people)–something I have argued in my critique of the late Tony Judt’s controversial opinion, expressed in The NY Review of Books in 2003, about Israel being “an anachronism” as “an ethno-religious state.”  Both agreed further that Jews who are involved in the community are more likely to see Israel as important to their identity than not.

Eisen noted the values gap that has opened up between most Jewish Israelis and most American Jews, i.e.: American Jews “want Israel to be for something,” while Israelis “just want Israel to be,” emphasizing “normality” and “security.”  American Jews can’t simply “toe a party line or be silent about Israel.”  Yet Eisen fully believes that “Israel has the facts on its side.” While I’d argue that it has many but not all facts on its side, this is compatible with Eisen’s further statement that the details are “complicated and there are negatives in everything.”  

Beinart vs. Stephens
The following night, my neighborhood Conservative congregation (Ansche Chesed) hosted Peter Beinart and Bret Stephens.  These are both phenomenally gifted and accomplished journalists and speakers, with Beinart being a passionate liberal (although not a left-liberal) and Stephens a self-described neoconservative. Both are committed Jews and Zionists.  But this is where their commonalities end.

I line up firmly with Beinart, but at least some of Stephens’ points of contention are worth repeating.  His least controversial point is that it’s not at all unusual for a country to be associated with a particular religion.  We know of the British monarch as head of the Church of England, for example.  And Stephens cited the very liberal country of Denmark, which nobody complains about for the fact that the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Denmark is its constitutionally-mandated official church.

More contentiously, Stephens sees the Arab-Israeli conflict as “existential” and not simply “territorial,” with even a “genocidal” component aimed at Jews.  Given the nature of Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda and other extreme elements in the Arab and Muslim worlds, I understand where this view comes from.  He also calls Arab societies “brittle, with little capacity for change.” Israel, by way of contrast, has this capacity and this leads him to say (very wrongly in my view) that “time is on Israel’s side.”

Moreover, Stephens sees it as beyond Israel’s ability to change the fundamental facts about Israel’s neighborhood.  To my mind, this is a defeatist way for supporters of Israel to think; it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for Israelis with this mindset who engage in policies and practices that make reconciliation and peace less possible.  I find that doctrinaire ideologues (whether on the right or the left) tend not to appreciate the interactive aspects of conflict, that the opposing sides tend to react to each others’ hostile actions, generally worsening the conflict. 

In this vein, Stephens only cites Israel’s concessions during Oslo and after, ignoring harsh measures and statements.  I see too many partisans of both sides as lacking in empathy for the other and disregarding factual evidence of how each has incited the other.    

Beinart and Stephens sparred on the data behind Beinart’s controversial article last year that liberal-minded American Jews are increasingly alienated from Israel.  Stephens’ citation of data that argues to the contrary was countered by Beinart because his thesis pertains to non-Orthodox Jews and he relies on a different survey.  In this connection, Beinart mentioned the news reports on non-Orthodox rabbinical students being disturbed by harsh aspects of Israel that they experience during their year of study there.

Beinart noted the fact that Israel as a refuge for persecuted Jews doesn’t speak to the younger generation’s experience.  His contention is that their support for Israel depends upon its treatment of the Palestinians and its future as a democracy–both problematic, unfortunately.

By | 2011-05-13T18:55:00-04:00 May 13th, 2011|Blog|3 Comments


  1. Talhe May 14, 2011 at 2:48 pm - Reply

    If you don’t mind me asking, how do you think that Israel can ‘change the fundamental facts of its neighborhood’? It can’t transform its neighbors into democracies, or change their society either.

    And even assuming it makes peace with the Palestinians, how much do you think it would change its Arab neighbors perception of Israel? The Arab world is, to put it lightly, not exceedingly tolerant of minorities, with countries that have a strong fundamentalist bent even less so. Even the neighbors it’s at peace with aren’t exactly ‘warm’; there have been demonstrations in Jordan and Egypt about breaking their agreements. If Israel had its citizens behave in such a way, we’d no doubt be hearing criticism about it from anyone left of Bill Clinton, and rightfully so.

    I’d like to be proven wrong. I really would.

  2. Ralph Seliger May 14, 2011 at 6:17 pm - Reply

    There is some factual basis for what Talhe fears is true, but as I said, it is a “defeatist” position. If Israel makes policy decisions on the assumption that the Arab world will always be its mortal enemy, then it creates a self-fulfilling prophecy, because these very policies instigate more hostility. I believe that enmities among nations and peoples can diminish over time, but hostile gestures, statements and policies (from either side) only make the achievement of peace more difficult.

  3. Talhe May 15, 2011 at 12:13 pm - Reply

    In my own experience(s), it’s better to prepare for the worst; anything that -isn’t- as bad as you think will be a improvement. I don’t think I’m defeatist, exactly; I just see a certain pattern of events that have happened over the course of this stupid conflict.

    Again, though, I want to be proven wrong.

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